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And We Hear: Love's Lost Lament

Karl Dunér, renowned director and artist, has been keeping busy. In addition to his ongoing preparations with theatre productions, he started off 2023 with not one but two solo exhibitions. In connection with his show PARABOLER at Galleri Duerr (February 2023) we sat down with Dunér for an in-depth interview into his practice. The crosspollination and merging of his approach to theatre with his artistic practice leads to fascinating results: “I work with audio-elements very much in the same way I do with colour” he states. Dunér is currently showing his second solo exhibition PING in cooperation with Galleri Duerr at Benhuset in Katarina Kyrkogård in Stockholm. The exhibition features inter alia the audio sculptures from his Skulls series and will also feature performances to be held at different occasions during this month of March.

Karl Dunér, PARABOLER, installation view, Galleri Duerr, 2023. Photo: Samuel Dunér

Not even words. Rather syllables, a lonely vowel scattered here and there. And then a sentence emerges only to disappear all too quickly. The actors’ utterances are morse signals bouncing off the brightly lit gallery’s walls, they reverberate and then die out. We move in darkness, on the edges of language among the Myrmidon fragments. In conjunction with his solo exhibition Paraboler at Galleri Duerr, Karl Dunér, renowned theatre director and visual artist accustomed to crosspollinating theatre with his artistic practice, is staging a play reading of the Myrmidons. Together with the gallery they are also hosting a presentation of the book Aischylos Myrmidonerna (eng. Aeschylus Myrmidons) published in limited edition by Ellerströms Text & Musik. It contains the fragments that can be connected to Aeschylus’ lost play Myrmidons translated to Swedish by Jan Stolpe and Lars-Håkan Svensson with images by Dunér.

Dunér reflects on these fragments, these tiny drops as he calls them, found in a junkyard in Egypt some hundred years ago. Mounted on the gallery walls, surrounding the gathered crowd are Dunér’s Paraboler, a row of rectangular shaped photographic images and paintings on curved aluminium plates. Shadows of the night, shapes of trees, city lights in the distance? It is hard to make out what is depicted. They too are on the edges of memory, faint echoes tracing out the void.

Karl Dunér, PARABOLER, installation view, Galleri Duerr, 2023. Photo: Samuel Dunér

C-P: In your ongoing exhibition Paraboler at Galleri Duerr, you present a series of 33 works that connect to recovered fragments of Aeschylus’ lost play Myrmidons and each work’s title is in reference to lines from the play. What was it in the Myrmidons fragments that stirred your interest?

K.D: It's a long story really. I have always been infatuated with the world of fragments in general and I developed an interest in Aeschylus’ fragments. When I directed the play Prometheus at Dramaten in Stockholm, I studied Aeschylus’ work including the fragments closely. In that play, I inserted into the play fragments from the Prometheia-trilogy as independent plays of fragments. It is thought that he wrote somewhere around 70 to 90 plays. However, in 300 BC in Ancient Greece they decided to save what they considered the best plays and thus included seven plays by Aeschylus. For some reason, Myrmidons, which is thought to be his breakthrough play, didn’t make the cut. Furthermore, I was intrigued by the subject the Myrmidons play deals with; the shame of handing over one's responsibility to someone else, the shame of not being able to really explain one’s innermost drive, why one chooses to act a certain way and the shame of one’s own arrogance. And then of course the desolation of having sent a loved one to death instead of oneself. These are all topics I found interesting, beyond the main plot of the play.

My interest in the Myrmidons is also intertwined with my preoccupation with this garbage heap in the ancient city of Oxyrhynchos adjacent to the river Nile in Egypt where the fragments were found. The image of this garbage heap is mesmerizing – the image as a metaphor appeals to me. I haven’t visited the location, but I imagine it probably looks like a contemporary junkyard. To think that there were 400 000 papyrus fragments discarded there is shocking.

C-P: I would like to know more about your choice of motif for the photographic works that make part of the series titled Paraboler.

K.D: The photographic images are in no way an illustration of the text in the sense that I did not take those images with the fragments in mind. There is no connection really. On the contrary, they are two worlds where the Myrmidon fragments fit together with the Paraboler much like puzzle pieces that don't quite fit together but have the same tone. The idea of photographic images that have the character of a lost landscape, one where you can barely make out what you are seeing appeals to me. You reckon it is in the night, but there is an uncertainty as to whether what you are seeing is for example a building or a figure. I wanted to focus on precisely that element of the photographic depiction – what is lost or missing. That is where I think the images coincided with the lost play where out of 1100 lines that a play like this normally consists of what is left are fragments that don’t even amount to a hundred lines. It was somewhere there that the lost landscape and the lost play met.

The images were shot at night on the outskirts of a city within a radius of only a couple of hundred meters. I also felt it was important that the city in question was not a big city or my hometown but a city which I cannot claim as my own. It was essential to me to photograph an environment I was not familiar with, which I had not studied for years and therefore could observe with the eye of an outsider. It is not my city, I am there as visitor, a stranger.

C-P: I understand that the images were shot somewhere in Italy but as I understand you, they could have been taken anywhere else?

K.D: It could have been anywhere else but there is something about that environment in Italy that appealed to me but still had traces of antiquity; something about the Italian landscape that I associate with the Mediterranean.

Karl Dunér, PARABOLER, installation view, Galleri Duerr, 2023. Photo: Samuel Dunér

C-P: There is something about the Mediterranean light during night that is different.

K.D: Yes, it is different, absolutely. And that is something that preoccupied me a great deal. Observing the light on the outskirts of a village at night and trying to figure out whether the light emanates from the city or the sky. I was drawn to the way the light shifted. Was the source of light artificial or real? To get back to your previous question regarding the connection to the Myrmidon fragments, I wanted these images to have an identity, not to be rendered fragments of images. Through the recovered lines in the Myrmidon, they get a name.

C-P: The curved surface of the aluminium on which the photographic works and paintings are set, lends the works a sculptural quality. They resemble precisely “paraboler” or satellite dishes – communication channels transmitting or receiving messages. They give me a sense that there is here a manifested intent to communicate and to connect, maybe with the past, and yet the message, or in this case image, transmitted to us and which takes the form of the photographs and paintings still seems cloaked in fog, veiled and distant – a fragment. Could you elaborate on the themes explored with the works?

K.D: When it came to the format, I chose early on a shape that would resemble satellite dishes for the following reasons. The trivial reason is that this form protects the photographic surface since the images are printed onto matte paper and thus more sensitive. But most importantly, the format was a way of associating to the idea of signals. A greeting coming from a voice far away in the distance where all we can make out are letters, but we do hear a voice somewhere that uttered something. The title of the works, Paraboler, also connects to this idea. Lastly, the thin rectangular shape of the works is, as I understood later, inspired by wall paintings I had seen in a Roman villa just outside of Naples. They had been preserved after the eruption of Vesuvius and were painted in what is called the Third Style Roman Wall painting. In the middle of each wall of the Villa, there was one single small rectangular painting, as if floating, usually depicting an idyllic landscape. I didn't think much about it when I worked on Paraboler, but it occurred to me later that this might be what triggered the shape.

Karl Dunér, PARABOLER, installation view, Galleri Duerr, 2023. Photo: Samuel Dunér

C-P: Some of your previous and latest works, such as Sinker 1and 2 (2018) and the series Skulls, include audio visual elements. This brings to mind your work as a theatre director and set designer. How does that experience inform your work and the topics you explore?

K.D: My work in the theatre and my artistic practice have run parallel with each other although theatre was the starting point. Back when I was only working with theatre, I remember feeling both drawn to and frustrated by how theatre lacks a certain integrity in the sense that the theatrical production is constantly shifting. During my work with one production, I wanted to explore with what goes on in the silence, in waiting for the next line to be uttered. I experimented with stretching out the silences, even clocking the length of the actors’ pauses, striving in a sense to portray the void. But the void I was striving to depict on the scene was filled with something else; to the actors it became a gesture, to the audience it was a queue for laughter. It turned out to be completely wrong. It was around that time that I began toying with the idea to do create a performance that had complete integrity; a performance where the outcome was not dictated by the director, the actors, or the audience.

In 1997 I made my first mechanical sculptures titled Sällskap (eng. Company) in co-operation with Peder Freiij. They consisted of a small case where a performance took place and where neither movement nor sound could ever be recreated. It took us a year and thirty engineers to create this intricate and complex programming for the performance. I have since worked parallel with both theatre and art so in my work I do not really distinguish between the two fields.

C-P: In the exhibition a series of audio-visual sculptural works, Skulls is presented alongside Paraboler. I understand that a painstaking process lies behind their creation. Could you please walk us thorough this process of creating these works?

K.D: The white pigment used for some of the Skulls is called gofun, traditionally made in Japan from dried oyster shells. The oyster shells are piled up and after thirty years, the inside of the oyster shells is scraped, washed, and boiled until they turn into the gofun powder. The powder can then be turned into pigment for painting. Japanese theatre masks, known as Noh masks, are typically primed with gofun. I have an interest in Japanese theatre tradition and studied the different theatre forms. For the works I exhibited at Waldemarsudde and Vandalorum I was inspired by the Bunraku theatre tradition to make the mechanical interior of the mechanical dolls I created. As regards the form of these sculptures, I wanted to create faces that in a sense resembled or brought to mind theatre masks. So, the use of gofun made sense to me. Gofun, when painted on has a mother of pearl, powdery surface but I consciously decided to paint wet on wet so as to bring forth the cracks in the paint. To summarise, as regards the process of creating the sculptures was informed by an interest in Japanese theatre traditions from different angles.

Karl Dunér, PARABOLER, installation view, Galleri Duerr, 2023. Photo: Samuel Dunér

C-P: Traces of a voices reciting lines from amongst other, Beckett plays can be heard when one is standing in front of some of the Skulls. I understand you have worked with Beckett plays in your capacity as theatre director. Tell me more about the significance of the choice of audio material for the works.

K.D: In Skulls the audio element function as remnants of memories. I work with audio elements very much in the same way I do with colour. I would not characterise the works as primarily audio works or primarily sculptures. You could say that sound functions as a shadow. The sounds you hear are like remnants of memories and what is left behind, for example when two people converse, is the atmosphere itself that lingers on in the space, the void. Kind of like when you enter a stairwell you've never been in, and then you immediately start thinking of your grandmother or something. And then you realise that it is the smell inside the stairwell that is reminiscent of the stairwell in the building she lived in. It is immaterial to me what material or element of smell triggers that memory but just that feeling that those thin strands of memory appear.

The audio elements in Skulls are overlays and combine sound elements from different rooms, indoors and outdoors, as if woven in. They resemble fragments of memory rooms a person has inhabited, a voice that you can barely hear but deeply entrenched in these Skulls. The sounds that you can barely make give you a sense that something was once uttered but has been lost. I was intrigued by working with these elements which deal with the concepts of memory and loss on different levels. The works in the series Skulls can be associated to Paraboler as they are also works based on fragments albeit fragments of sound. In this context, I felt excerpts from Beckett’s work Company fit well thematically.

Karl Dunér, PARABOLER, installation view, Galleri Duerr, 2023. Photo: Samuel Dunér

C-P: Your work exhibits a keen interest in literature, so I must ask – what are you currently reading?

K.D: Primarily, I read non-fiction related to work. For fun, I am currently reading a new translation of Mallarmé’s poems and a book with text by Hans-Georg Gadamer.

C-P: Lastly, what is in store for you in 2023?

K.D: On March 2, I will be showing new works in a solo exhibition Ping at Benhuset in Stockholm and in October we are premiering a new play I have directed at Dramaten in Stockholm.

Corina Wahlin


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